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Work Relief of Maliku

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Levant

Funerary relief

© 2009 RMN / Franck Raux

Near Eastern Antiquities

Prévotat Arnaud, Caubet Annie

Maliku is shown at a banquet, accompanied by his wife Hadira. Banqueting was an important social and religious act in Palmyra. After religious ceremonies, members of a confraternity gathered in one of the banquet halls of the town, holding their entry ticket, a terracotta tessera. It is unclear whether this relief depicts the deceased at a banquet during his life or enjoying the unending pleasures of the afterlife.

Maliku and his wife

This rectangular relief shows the deceased reclining on a triclinium (dining couch), holding a cup in his hand. He wears oriental clothing, consisting of an embroidered tunic and a cloak held by a fibula at the shoulder over embroidered baggy trousers drawn in at the ankles. The head is turned to full face position with the eyes fixed on eternity. He is bareheaded with well trimmed curly hair, beard, and moustache. His wife is shown sitting at his feet, at a smaller scale. She wears Greek-style clothing: a tunic beneath a cloak drawn up to cover the head and held back with the left hand. She wears heavy jewelry on her ears, neck, and wrists. She is also gazing into the distance. All that can be seen of the bed is the thick mattress and cushions, whose embroidery is as detailed as that of the dead man's clothing. The cartouche in the field between the heads of the two figures is borrowed from Roman practices of lapidary inscriptions. The epitaph reads "Image of Maliku, son of Hagegu, son of Maliku, priest of the temple precinct, alas! and Hadira, his wife."

Prosperous trade

The image provides a wealth of information about the cosmopolitan culture of the great Palmyrene families. The man displays his oriental identity; his costume, inherited from the Parthian tradition, is that of the caravanners, and his boots are those worn on the steppe. But he shows his pride as a Palmyrene. The inscription and his luxurious clothing, possibly imported from central Asia or Persia, are a reminder of the source of his wealth. The caravan town was at the heart of trade between India and the Mediterranean. The lineage of the deceased is proudly displayed. In contrast, the portrait of his wife shows that she looked after the house but that the refined aspects of western life were not unfamiliar to her. Her jewelry shows that she has a share in the prosperity of the family. Being seated, she reaches the same height in the relief as her reclining husband, a discreet allusion to her status. Slightly inferior, she was nonetheless respected and occupiues a dignified position beside the dead man. The cosmopolitan culture of Palmyra is shown by the variety of the clothes and the presence of Greek inscriptions.

The banquet

Banqueting in a reclining position is a practice of the Greco-Roman world. It gained a funerary significance in Palmyra. Family tombs have a main room dominated by the monumental sarcophagus of the founder, topped by full reliefs showing the head of the clan surrounded by his relatives and servants, reclining on a "kline" (triclinium) with a cup in his hand. The rest of the tomb contains superposed rows of loculi in which the coffins were placed. The loculi were each sealed by a plaque bearing an image of the deceased person; this might be a miniature of the main banqueting relief or a bust. A cloth hanging was often carved behind the dead person to mark the separation between the worlds of the living and of the dead. All the deceased are shown in full face view; the eyes are enlarged with incised pupils, sometimes highlighted with color. This prefigures Byzantine frontality, which also derives from Roman portraits in Egypt. Indeed, the stylistic features of what was to become early Christian art emerged in the Romanized east.

Technical description

  • Funerary relief

    First half of 3rd century AD

    Palmyra (ancient Tadmor), Syria

  • Limestone

    H. 44 cm; W. 57 cm; D. 21 cm

  • Acquired in 1890 , 1890

    AO 2000

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Arabia: the caravan cities, Dura-Europus, Palmyra, 3rd century BC–3rd century AD
    Room 315
    Display case 4

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